By Jessica Graham
“There is a huge amount of freedom that comes to you when you take nothing personally.”
― Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom
I spent this past weekend meditating at Blue Heron Ranch in Ojai, CA. Enrico and Nadia Natali bought this beautiful piece of land in 1980 and over the decades have built an amazing home and retreat center. Blue Heron is off the grid, solar powered, and on a road that most can only access by foot. We had experienced two river crossings on the bumpy drive up the dirt road, and all cell reception had long vanished by the time we were nearing the ranch. A massive flop-eared german shepherd mix led us to the main house like some kind of benevolent and majestic animal out of Narnia.
I’d never been on a meditation retreat for less than a week. This one was only Friday through Sunday, so I wanted to settle in right away if possible. The land, the gracious and wise hosts, delicious food, the intimate zendo, and a small group of fifteen very dedicated meditators made this easy. It’s often said that the first two days of retreat are the hardest. Your body is making a fuss about sitting still for so long. The activity mind has not yet begun to smooth out. I have found that when you are no longer attached to one state or another this isn’t the case. In fact when you let go of the expectation to have big insights or a deeper awakening, retreats open up in very interesting ways.
One of my favorite things to do on retreat is sit in the zendo (meditation hall) after everyone has gone off to bed. There is this wonderful feeling in the room created from all the hours of group practice and a delicious loneliness that tends to inspire a deep calm. On the first night in Ojai there was a full moon. The silver light spilled into the zendo as the group began to leave for the evening. I stayed behind and spent a few more hours basking in the glow of the moon and the residue of the group’s energy.
Eventually I was ready for bed and stood up with creaky knees and a calm mind. When I got outside the moon was so incredibly bright. It was almost like daytime. For a moment I wanted to take my clothes off and moon bathe like one of my favorite Anais Nin characters. Instead I kept walking towards the cozy trailer where my boyfriend was asleep. Aside from the main house there are multiple smaller wood buildings, yurts, and trailers for retreat guests. They are scattered all around and connected by paths and stone walkways. There are also paths that lead to trails though the mountains and valleys surrounding Blue Heron. As I walked towards bed, I changed my mind and took one of these paths instead. The moon lit the path up and a warm breeze started blowing in that direction. It seemed only right to accept the invitation.
As I ventured out on my own into the night, a sense of awe filled me. There was so much beauty. Alone in the very bright darkness, surrounded by mountains and quiet it was impossible not to drop into the awareness of oneness. Solid me, on a meditation retreat, became faint and the Everything took over. But then, as it often does, The self arose.
What beauty. Oh my god this is so beautiful. I’m all alone in the night and I’m not even afraid. Is there something that could attack me out here? No, no, don’t think about that. Oh, the beauty. I wish I could look at the moon and the mountains at the same time. Too bad the stars are dimmed by the moon. But the moon is so amazing. I love this. I love this.
In that moment I could have judged the fact that I was thinking. I could have gotten angry with the thoughts, with the self that was thinking them. But a side effect of sitting with your thoughts in meditation for a while is that you take them less seriously. Less personally. You stop identifying with the concept of a thinker and just let thoughts come and go without judgement.
I just laughed a little about how I was trying to make this a personal thing that was happening to Me. With that laughter came the deepening of insight. This wasn’t personal. The moon, mountains, the warm breeze, they weren’t for Me. The idea of grabbing the experience and making it mine was literally laughable. Nothing is personal. Not even the blissful experience I was aware of on that night.
On the flip side, the experience was deeply mine and deeply personal. The insight of oneness showed me that nothing is separate. In some sense there is no difference between me and the moonlight. No difference between my thoughts and the mountains. Everything is both impersonal and personal.
After spending a little more time with the night I found my way back to the trailer. Crawling into bed, I tried not to wake my boyfriend. I was pretty much wide awake and the mind started to tell me stories. An imaginary conversation began to play in my head. He’ll say that and then I’ll say this. And then a silent laugh. This wasn’t personal either. Nothing is personal in the way I once thought it was. Not the beauty of the night and not the beauty of my human mind always wanting to figure something out.
The weekend proved to be a quite a treat. While I would have loved to spend a week there, the limited time added to the magical almost dream-like quality of my time at Blue Heron Ranch.
In any moment we can recognize oneness or realize that things are both impersonal and deeply personal. I have found that a meditation practice and attending retreats helps me to remember and live these truths with less of a gap. If I give myself the gift of practice I’m more likely to remember while in the midst of a disagreement with my boyfriend or a moment of insecurity with my work.
Every moment is an opportunity to remember what you already know.